Sushi and Sunshine

fishmarket_thumb.jpgBoulder, CO., January 21, 2008 - Oceanic Preservation Society, executive director, Louie Psihoyos donated an electric car to his film team today, the first step in a solutions-based program to help save the oceans. Just back from his sixth visit to Japan in three years, he has radically changed his view of sushi and sunshine.

Pollution of the oceans, particularly mercury from coal-fired power plants is one of the biggest problems now facing humanity. Mercury has been rising about 2% a year. Its level has risen about 5 times since the industrial revolution. Methyl-mercury, and other pollutants bioaccumulate in our top predator fish like tuna, swordfish, shark, mackerel and tilefish. Pregnant women or women expecting to become pregnant within two years or children under six should not eat tuna, any tuna at all.

Those advisories from the EPA and FDA have been highly manipulated by powerful lobbies in Congress. I suspect, as do many experts that we interviewed for our movie, that we should not be eating any ocean apex predators at all.

A major turning point for me came when the OPS team visited Minamata, Japan, site of the worst mercury outbreak in history. Back in the 1950’s through the 1960’s the Chisso Corporation was dumping mercury-laced effluent, a by-product of the acetaldehyde process used in the manufacture of plastics, into a canal, which dumped into the nearby Shiranui Sea. When the company executives discovered they were poisoning fisherman and their families south of the plant they, diverted their dumping into the Minamata River, which then poisoned an entirely different fishing community. Hundreds of thousands of people were exposed. The Japanese government has since been convicted of helping Chisso cover up the outbreak and is now paying legal damages.


Japanese school children are unwittingly fed mercury-laced dolphin meat for lunch
© Louie Psihoyos/ 

While we were there, we took a group of scientists and doctors who study the Minamata tragedy out for lunch and none of them ate the fish. None - even though the fish came from other parts of the world. They just ate veggie sushi, and these are Japanese people who, as a culture, eat on average 66 kilos of seafood per person per year – the highest rate of any culture in the world.

One of the scientists told me about a frightful experiment that he and five colleagues conducted on each other that changed the entire hospital staff’s view of seafood. They jokingly called it, the “Supersize Me Experiment-Japanese style”. The scientists had been curious about the speed that mercury bioaccumulates in the human body. Aware of the ethics of potentially poisoning outside subjects, they chose to conduct the experiments on themselves. Also, they couldn’t convince the university to pay for it – so they paid for it themselves. The scientists decided that each would eat 200 grams of tuna every day, for 30 days, checking their mercury levels weekly. 200 grams is equivalent to roughly 7 ounces, or less than half a can of tuna per day. The mercury levels of the subjects climbed at an alarming rate each week. They all knew they were etching out neurons in their precious grey matter. Then, the experiment suddenly had a new variable – with the bonito season over, their tuna purveyor ran out of cheap cuts of tuna – all he had left were the more expensive, sushi grade cuts from the belly of the large bluefin. Some of the scientists felt relieved, surely the expensive cuts were safer, but after the following week’s blood test, that’s when they were all kicked through the looking glass and their lives changed forever.

Their already high levels had quadrupled – the sushi grade tuna was 4 times as toxic as the cheap cuts. The fatty (and most expensive) sushi bioaccumulated the most toxins. The net result was that after 4 weeks, the researchers’ mercury levels had risen on average, eight times per person – not yet to Minamata victim levels, but on a trajectory they would soon fall into lockstep with that deadly path.

In China alone, there is one new coal-fired plant scheduled to come on line every week for the next 20 years. Dr Roger Payne, who for the last 6 years has been researching how toxins bioaccumulate in whales told me that “if we lose excess to fish in the sea we will be causing a stress to humanity which I can safely say is the biggest health concern humanity has ever faced.

Much of the dolphin meat tested in Japan which are fed to school children have higher levels of mercury than the fish that caused Minamata’s disease. And it’s not just mercury which bioaccumulates in whales and dolphins, it’s also cadmium and lead and a whole host of toxic chemicals call POP’s (Persistent Organic Pollutants) which are showing up in large quantities in the ocean’s apex predators, that is, all the fish we love to eat.

I’ve been a vegetarian for 23 years, my main source of protein is fish - as is the rest of the world’s. Humanity derives 70% of its protein from the oceans. 7 out of 10 people. After meeting with the Minamata researchers, they recommended that I have my own blood-mercury levels checked back in the US. I found that had 24 parts per million of mercury in my system. A high level for concern in the U.S. is five parts.

I was advised to no longer eat apex ocean predators. Mercury has a half-life in the human body of about 70-90 days, yet while it’s in your system, the scientists told me, damage is being done even in small amounts. Those delicate neurons I saw etched away in the brains of children and adults, kept in jars at Kumamoto University research labs. I wondered how much I have lost. And I’m just one person – what foundation for a future hell are we laying out now for the next generations and what can we do about it now?

Sometimes it seems daunting to resist what seems like overwhelming odds – after all we are all just one person. But every revolution begins by someone or a whole group of people taking the first step. Yesterday I went out and bought and donated an electric car for OPS. It’s a small car, made by Zenn (stands for Zero-Emission No Noise) It’s a two seater from Canada, based on a diesel car called the Metro which is made in France. It has plenty of trunk space for trips around town – it will fill about 90% of our driving needs and I’ll be able to hide my SUV around back and reserve it for the occasional trips to the airport or the mountains. What’s really cool though is that I have also ordered a 24-kilowatt solar power plant for the roof of OPS and in the next few months our electric car and 100% of basic electrical needs in the studio will be powered by the sun. With 300 days of sunshine in Boulder, during the summer months, we will be selling energy back to the electric company. Is it expensive? Yes, but there are some great rebates to be had now and the real cost of cheap energy is what few of us talk about – the cost of leaving behind a legacy that no animal in the wild will do, fowl its own nest.

It’s been a dream of mine since our team began making this movie that we not just complain about and expose problems– but we also offer some sound solutions.

Alternative energy sounds like the wrong kind of name for what I feel should be a priority for all of us – it’s almost derogatory – like some fringe spacey lifestyle. I think we should call it Smart Energy – and I think future generations would agree.

Our cost of the Iraqi War, which is all about energy security, is going to reach somewhere north of 2 trillion dollars. That works out to about $24,000 for every man, woman and child in America, enough hard cash to easily put an electric car in every driveway and a solar array on every rooftop in America. At the end of war you leave behind a wasteland of broken people and structures. Even if you put 1% of that lost wealth into research for Smart Energy, give it away as research grants to our best and brightest at our top universities and develop incentives programs, we would find solutions to the biggest problems now facing humanity - clean energy and a healthy food supply.

As for OPS we’re not going to wait for our politicians to see the light, we’ve seen it, we’re harnessing it and were going to begin selling it back to the energy companies.

Onwards and Upwards all,

Louie Psihoyos

Executive Director of the Oceanic Preservation Society

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